Michael White was a social worker and family therapist who developed narrative therapy, an innovative and highly practical technique using storytelling to help patients of all ages deal with childhood traumas. He then took his methods from Australia around the world.
With a colleague from New Zealand, David Epston, White explored the power of shaping personal accounts and memories in facing the lingering effects of childhood inadequacies and other obstacles in patients' lives. Their technique was explained in their 1990 book,Narrative Means To Therapeutic Ends, and became known as narrative therapy.
The technique is based in part on having a patient externalise a condition or problem - such as obesity, the loss of a parent or the resentment of a sibling - and come up with stories and metaphors to re-evaluate the situation, usually from a more positive perspective. For example, the therapy has been used to help bed-wetting children distance themselves from shame and anxiety, so they can consider their condition more objectively and not necessarily as a character flaw.
Some practitioners encourage patients to write stories, letters, essays or poems and to recall actual events in which they vanquished a concern or responded to a family member with cathartic satisfaction.
A practitioner of narrative therapy, Gene Combs, an associate professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Loyola University in Chicago, said White had emphasised the need to "elevate the person you're working with, instead of elevating the therapist" so discussions with patients, alone or in family groups, could ensure that individuals were not viewed as "generic carriers of problems, or only as pathologies and not people".
The goal is to help a patient recognise personal strengths and supportive relationships that can aid in surmounting a problem, leading to what Dr Combs called the "preferred stories" of success in the patient's life.
Michael Kingsley White, who died of a heart attack at 59, was born and grew up in Adelaide, the son of Neil and Joan White. He worked briefly as a probation and welfare officer before gaining a degree in social work from the University of South Australia in 1979.
He then became a psychiatric social worker at Adelaide Children's Hospital before he and his wife, Cheryl Hollams, whom he had married in 1972, established their private practice at the Dulwich Centre in 1983. White further refined his ideas in a book published last year,Maps Of Narrative Practice, and this year established the Adelaide Narrative Therapy Centre.
Although narrative therapy has been used to treat anorexia, school-related anxiety and problems common in children and young adults, its uses continue to broaden. White applied it to Aboriginal communities in NSW and Western Australia, and found that storytelling could be a tool in helping people come to terms with dispossession and the forced relocation from their ancestral lands.
He often travelled to present case histories and refinements of narrative theory and was on a similar journey in San Diego, California, when he died. White embraced life with vigour, enthusiasm and a sense of wonder and delight. His keen intellect and wicked sense of humour meant he had no time for accolades or glorification, but he loved to share his understanding of the world and use this to help people.
Michael White is survived by his mother, Joan, and his wife, Cheryl, and their daughter, Penni.
Jeremy Pearce, The New York Times, and Harriet Veitchwww.psychspace.com心理学空间网